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Top 10 Favorite Rock Organ Performances

The past week has put organ, specifically rock-relevant organ, on my mind. I spent some time playing some organ-drum duets with my friend Bill Carbone, a great and very versatile drummer – we wound up playing a bunch of jazz-inspired arrangements Grateful Dead songs and had a great time. Then on Sunday I was asked to overdub an organ solo on a great rock song by my multi-talented friend Dave Kopperman. It was at that point my job to largely put aside my jazz vocabulary and just play a good rock solo, albeit over some chord changes more akin to Steely Dan than to the Rascals . We tried using Fender Rhodes first, but it became clear that the Hammond Organ would be the way to go, both because of the capabilities of the instrument and because of my own oft-neglected trove of rock organ solo vocabulary.

So, of course, this got me thinking about what music led to my developing that vocabulary in the first place, not to mention my appreciation of the sound of the Hammond B3 through a Leslie speaker (mostly well before I ever heard Jimmy Smith). In this list, not only am I giving myself leeway for songs with and without significant organ solos (though everything here has at least a little of that) but also selecting “favorites” through an unscientific blend of quality and archetypal impact (e.g. I heard ‘em early, I dug ‘em and they’re inexorably embedded in my musical consciousness). Note also that I’m limiting this list to rock organ and thus invite more broad-minded organ fans to click here to see my Jazz Organ Top 10 or to click here to see my Top 10 R&B Keyboard Performances.

There are many significant rock organists left off this list, including Jon Lord, Felix Cavaliere, Ray Manzarek and the trove of organists that some of my prog rock-loving friends may lambaste me for neglecting (Emerson, Wakeman, etc.). Likewise, there are classic organ solos on plenty of rock songs from “House of the Rising Sun” to “Magic Carpet Ride” to “Carry On, Wayward Son” to “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” but I had to trim somewhere.

1 ) Benmont Tench: “Refugee” (from Damn the Torpedoes by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers)

His solo on this song is barely 4 measures long, but Benmont Tench’s playing on this track (and many others) epitomizes the textural variety and power of the Hammond organ in rock music. Before I grew up and started to learn about the drawbars and so on I just couldn’t understand how he coaxed so many sounds out of one organ on a single song.

2 ) Reese Wynans: “Cold Shot” (from Austin City Limits Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble)

You know how people sometimes find clips on YouTube and get really into them? Well in my day it was making VHS recordings of things on TV and watching them repeatedly. This concert was recorded not long before Stevie Ray Vaughan’s tragic passing, and I watched this over and over again, particularly trying to figure out how to mimic what Wynans did here, especially on his solo (cheating a bit, though, since at the time I couldn’t imagine doing that stuff in A-flat minor).

3 ) Seth Justman: “Give It To Me” (from Bloodshot) by the J. Geils Band)

As far as organ solos within pop structures go, this one is a mini-clinic in idiomatically effective licks. I never formally “transcribed” it, but by the time I was 17 I pretty much used every lick in here.

4 ) Steve Winwood: “Voodoo Chile” (from Electric Ladyland by Jimi Hendrix)

I could have easily chosen his iconic playing on “Gimme Some Lovin’” (when he was like 5 years old) or any number of Traffic songs, but this long, powerhouse collaboration with Hendrix just has so much great playing that to me it’s the place to gorge on his great Hammond work.

5 ) Rod Argent: “Time of the Season” (from Odessey and Oracle by the Zombies)

When I was a teenager and really into this song, I honestly couldn’t figure out what the heck instrument it was that Argent was using to solo on. Eventually I learned about the percussion settings on the organ and then I understood. His electric piano solo on “She’s Not There” is justifiably hailed as classic, and his work with his own band, Argent (particularly the hit “Hold Your Head Up”) is also noteworthy, but as classic as this song is, to me this is a brilliant and underrated solo.

6 ) Gregg Rolie: “Toussaint L’Overture” (from Santana III by Santana)

There are a lot of Rolie solos to choose from just from the early years of Santana (“Everything’s Coming Our Way,” “Oye Como Va,” “Incident at Neshabur” and especially the Woodstock performance of “Soul Sacrifice”), and I could have picked any of them. I feel it’s cheating a little to pick this one (is it Latin enough that I can’t call it “rock?”) but the solo rocks enough that I still feel it fits.

7 ) Brent Mydland: “Bertha” (with the Grateful Dead, live at Philadelphia Spectrum, 9/23/87)

This one is ranked so low because a) there’s no organ solo and b) it’s not on any recording that you can find unless you’re rummaging through my tape bin or are a savvy GD archivist, but for pure impact on me it’s probably #1. Perhaps because I wasn’t the garden-variety Deadhead (e.g. collecting tapes, going to more shows than I could count, etc.) I still vividly remember being picked up early from 8th grade Home Ec class to drive with my sister and cousin to Philly to see this concert (my second of about 15). And my most vivid memory as a budding keyboard-guy was discovering, in the context of a catchy song and a wild light show, how effective the organ can be as a rhythm instrument, providing just the exclamation point needed at a dramatic point in a song. The clip below does not at all represent an identical performance, but it’s from the same era and gives a sense of what I’m talking about, especially during the more climactic points as the song progresses.

8 ) Lee Michaels: “Hold On to Freedom” (from Live)

I felt the need to throw in one example of an organist covering the bass lines in a rock setting, and I feel there’s no better example than the powerhouse playing of Lee Michaels (sorry to fans of Ray Manzarek), who plows through this whole album accompanied only by a drummer and it doesn’t sound at all empty. He doesn’t do a lot of dramatic soloing (save for his wailing on “Stormy Monday” here and on the studio version from a bit earlier) but his soloing and chord playing are soulful and hard-grooving.

9 ) Garth Hudson “The Shape I’m In” (from Stage Fright by the Band)

Here is a counter-example to the grunged-out B3 sound we generally associate with rock organ. Especially in between fellow keyboardist Richard Manuel’s vocal verses, Hudson plays some quirky and highly melodic solo lines.

10 ) Joe Jackson: “Target” (from Night and Day)

Jackson is mostly a pianist, but on this guitar-less album he plays a variety of keyboard instruments (plus alto sax on one song!). This Afro-Cuban-inspired song features an extended and highly effective organ solo during an extended instrumental middle section.

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